Charles V: King of Spain and Germanic Emperor

For a significant chunk of his reign, Charles V, who was both king of Spain and the Germanic emperor, fought Francis I, who was king of France.

Charles V (1500–1558) was one of Europe’s most renowned monarchs and rulers during his time. He was in charge of the Netherlands, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. Charles V’s reign as a vast empire’s “sun never sets” king was unprecedented. It wasn’t enough that he was the first king to rule over a colonial empire on the new continent of America; he also benefited from a series of fortunate inheritances that put him in charge of a vast European empire. During his rule, Charles V fought the French in the Italian wars, the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe, and the Protestant movement in Germany.

The legacy of Charles V

Charles V, who would eventually become King of Spain, was born in Ghent, Flanders, in 1500. He wasn’t exactly pampered by nature, but he did have a golden spoon inserted into his mouth. Since he was a Frenchman, he was steeped in the Burgundian culture of his father’s wealthy lands, including Belgium, Artois, Luxembourg, southern Holland, and Franche-Comté, which he inherited in 1506. His maternal ancestors, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, were the “Catholic monarchs” who ended the reconquest of Spain from the Moors (Reconquista), ruled the Mediterranean, and oversaw Christopher Columbus‘s 1492 expedition to the New World.

In 1518, Charles V became Charles I of Spain upon inheriting the crown. After dismissing his depressed mother, Joanna of Castile, he ran into opposition from the Hispanics, who were not happy to see a monarch from Burgundy.

Upon the death of his grandfather, Emperor Maximilian I, he also became archduke of Austria, a position that paved the way for him to ascend to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, which he did in 1519 by purchasing the votes of the prince electors. His rivals Francis I and Henry VIII had correctly assessed the threat that this too well born Charles posed to the equilibrium in Europe, and they would give him very little breathing room.

Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

Charles V, unquestionably the most powerful ruler in Christendom, ruled over a confederation of territories that included the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, the Italian states of Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia, the territories conquered in America and Africa, the Netherlands, Flanders, Artois, Alsace, and Franche-Comté, and all Habsburg possessions. The French sovereign was worried about the safety of his enclosed territory in the face of this growing Habsburg strength.

As a French Catholic, Charles was an outsider in Spain and even more so in Germany; thus, any unity of such an empire was purely fictitious. Francis I, seeing an opportunity, rapidly grasped the challenge of consolidating so many territories under one banner and set out to take advantage of Charles V’s vulnerability.

Charles V versus Francis I

After marrying Isabella of Portugal in 1526, Charles V became ruler of both the New and Old Worlds. He is, first and foremost, a European king because of his wealth and his heritage. He allegedly used French with men, Italian with women, Spanish with God, and German with his horse. When he was crowned Emperor in 1520 at Aachen, he was likely fantasizing about a hypothetical worldwide empire, with Europe as its base. He was likely thinking back on Charlemagne on the one hand and his Italian sailors and Spanish conquistadors on the other, as they attacked the Americas. The slogan “Toujours plus loin” he adopted summed up his aspirations. An aspiration that would be hindered by the many thorns that would soon take root in his dream.

To begin, there was this cactus called François I at the helm of the kingdom of France that stood in the way of his laborious land and sea travels to visit his empire or to transfer his forces around. The French king was hemmed in on all sides, and the ambitious Emperor engaged in a bloody conflict that lasted for four decades. Despite certain military triumphs (Pavia, 1525), the tenacious king of France refused to give in despite the signing of the Treaty of Madrid (1526), and the two sides exhausted themselves in a succession of battles that did not yield any enduring benefit to either of them.

Francis I didn’t give up and confronted Charles V by teaming up with Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who was threatening Charles V’s Habsburg holdings by laying siege to Vienna (1529). After failing to establish himself in North Africa against the Turks, Charles took solace in expanding his territory to include Bohemia, Milan, and Holland. Louise of Savoy, on behalf of the King of France, and Margaret of Austria, on behalf of the Emperor, signed a fragile peace treaty in Cambrai in 1529. This agreement came to be known as the Ladies‘ Peace.

Threats to the Empire

Charles V sought peace with France quickly after each of his battles with them so that he could focus on defending the Empire from the Ottomans and ending the internal religious strife. After conquering the Balkan Peninsula, Sultan Suleiman I made war on Hungary in 1526 and promptly won the Battle of Mohács. The Turks began their siege of Vienna three years later. In service to Charles V, the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria conducted an expedition to Africa in 1535, where he defeated the Turks in the Battle of Tunis and set free around 20,000 Christian captives. The Holy League was founded in 1538 by Pope Paul III and the Republic of Venice. Ferdinand I, King of Bohemia and Hungary and brother of Charles V, was forced to negotiate a peace deal with the Turks in 1547 when the alliance collapsed.

Another factor that may have undermined the stability of his kingdom was the religious reform that started and gained momentum during his rule. Since 1517, when Martin Luther’s views began to circulate in Germany, others followed suit, beginning a movement that would eventually sweep throughout Europe and attempt to alter the Church’s doctrines and practices. It was inevitable that the German lords, who were tired of the Emperor’s efforts to restrict what they called their “Germanic liberties,” would find inspiration in the Reformation. The Schmalkaldic League came together in 1529. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was an ardent Catholic who battled hard against the Reformation.

Charles V was unable to halt the spread of the Reformation in Germany, Switzerland, or the Netherlands despite his military victory at Mülhberg (1547) against the rebellious Lutheran princes, opportunistically aided by Francis I. This was especially true because of how weakened papal power already was due to his efforts to counter France’s influence in Italy (the sack of Rome in 1526 under the pontificate of Clement VII).

Only the Netherlands grew during Charles V’s time in power, and that was largely owing to the development of commercial activities at major ports like Amsterdam and Antwerp. The pragmatic sanction of 1549 marked the beginning of a political transformation by officially recognizing the Seventeen Provinces as an “indivisible and indivisible” entity.

Charles V, a humanist who was friends with thinkers like Erasmus, Andreas Vesalius, and Bruegel the Elder, controlled his realms with an enlightened hand. A insurrection in 1539 in Ghent, instigated by the French ruler, and the severe persecution that followed it were the only blemishes on the country’s otherwise bright history.

A difficult end to the reign of Charles V

Charles V’s vision of a worldwide Christian empire slowly disintegrated. Despite the incredible riches that his ships brought back from the Americas, he was unable to geographically consolidate his kingdom because of French opposition. Meanwhile, the Turks threatened his empire’s frontiers in the Balkans, and he stood by while religious strife swept through Europe. Charles V proclaims his desire to abdicate in front of a surprised Europe in 1555, after years of exhaustion brought on by the constant conflicts he had to command on all fronts.

That hadn’t happened since the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, so you know it was a very unique event. He was sane enough to split his massive dominion with his brother Ferdinand and his son, the future monarch of Spain, Philip II. After making his imprint on the 1600s, he moved to the monastery of San Jerónimo de Yuste in Extremadura and retreated from the outside world. On September 21, 1558, he succumbed to malaria, and his hope went with him.

The young Emperor Charles V nearly tied the knot with Renee of France, the heiress and daughter of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. One can’t help but fantasize about Europe’s fate if Charles V had been able to add France to his collection of crowns via this relationship.


March 11, 1517: Emperor Maximilian, Charles of Habsburg, and Francis I join forces in the Treaty of Cambrai

The Treaty of Cambrai was signed on March 11, 1517, by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, King Francis I of France, and King Charles V of Castile. Under the terms of their alliance, both parties agreed to jointly defend their territories against the Turks and provide security guarantees for one another’s property. This last sentence, however, remained elusive, suggesting that none of the three monarchs were eager to commit to a costly battle with the Turks.

August 3, 1518: Opening of the Diet of Augsburg

On August 3, 1518, under the reign of Emperor Maximilian I, the Imperial Diet convened in the city of Augsburg. The Emperor attempted to have his grandson, Charles V, crowned king of Rome at this meeting, but his plan was ultimately unsuccessful. Unfortunately, he did not live to present this in the subsequent Diet because he passed away the next year, in 1519. Since Emperor Maximilian’s only son, Philip I of Castile, died in 1506, perhaps from typhoid sickness, he planned to propose to his grandson.

June 28, 1519: Charles V, Emperor

Charles I of Spain, 19 years old, was proclaimed emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, under the name of Charles V or Charles V. The arrival of this new ruler signaled the beginning of a protracted period of competition between the Habsburg Empire and the kingdom of France. Abdicating in 1556 and retiring to the Yuste (Spain) monastery, the emperor had ruled an enormous region over which “the sun never sets”. Then his brother Ferdinand would become the Emperor of Germany, and his son Philip would become the King of Spain.

June 7, 1520: The interview of the Camp of the Cloth of Gold

French King Francis I and English King Henry VIII met in the region of Calais (Pas-de-Calais). The King of Spain had been elected emperor under the name Charles V the previous year, therefore the major topic of discussion at this assembly was how to respond to the new ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. With the imperial treasures at his disposal, Francis I intended to persuade King of England to join France in an alliance. At the Camp du Drap d’Or, he extended every courtesy and honor to him. Francis I may have hoped he’d gain something from this encounter, but two weeks later, Henry VIII and Charles V would patch things up.

February 7, 1522: Treaty of Brussels

The Treaty of Brussels, signed on February 7, 1522, was a follow-up to the Treaty of Worms, which had been signed the year before (1521). Charles V, King of Castile and the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, negotiated this pact to confirm Ferdinand I’s brother, Ferdinand, as the sole proprietor of the five Habsburg principalities (Austria, Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, and Styria). After that, Ferdinand was appointed governor of South Germany, Tyrol, and Upper Alsace.

April 27, 1522: Defeat of Francis I at Bicoque

France’s Francis I, led by Lautrec, lost ground to Charles V’s soldiers at Bicoque. Due to this, France had no choice but to hand up the Duchy of Milan to its most savage opponent.

June 19, 1522: Treaty of Windsor

King Charles V of Castile and the Holy Roman Empire signed the Treaty of Windsor with King Henry VIII of England on June 19, 1522. Amidst the Sixth Italian War (1521–1525), which pitted the Kingdom of France against Italy, Spain, and England, this pact was negotiated. The document exposes a conspiracy between the two signatories to attack France.

October 26, 1524: Francis I took Milan

Charles V’s Milan was conquered by Francis I of France and his troops. On the next day, the French began their siege of Pavia. On February 24, 1525, King Francis I was captured.

February 24, 1525: Francis I was taken prisoner in Pavia

In his eagerness to secure victory, the king raced into the opposing lines even as the French guns of Genouillac were doing heavy damage to the Spanish forces stationed in Pavia. French artillery fire instantly ceased out of concern of harming the monarch. Spanish forces took advantage of the situation by surrounding the king. There was a total slaughter of Francis I’s army, and the king and some of his generals were captured. Before becoming a captive in Spain, Charles V had Francis I held at a Carthusian convent in Pavia. He was released after renunciating Italy and receiving Burgundy in return for signing the Treaty of Madrid on January 14, 1526.

January 14, 1526: Francis I signs the Treaty of Madrid

In order to secure his freedom after being held captive by Charles V since February 1525, Francis I signed the Treaty of Madrid. As part of his promise, he gave up Burgundy and any rights to Italian territory. The French monarch disregarded the terms of the contract the day following his release in March 1526, leaving his two sons in Spain as hostages.

March 17, 1526: Release of Francis I

The King of France, a prisoner of Charles V since his defeat at Pavia, was released from his prison in Madrid. The terms of the pact that secured his freedom called for the surrender of Burgundy to the Emperor and the hostage taking of his two sons, Francis and Henry. Soon after, however, Francis I broke this pact and joined forces with the Italian princes and the Pope in the League of Cognac to fight Charles V. The war would resume immediately until the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529.

May 22, 1526: League of Cognac

On May 22, 1526, a league was established against Emperor Charles V at the instigation of Louise of Savoy, the mother of the French king Francis I, who was in jail at the time. Florence, Milan, and Venice are members of this alliance, as is Pope Clement VII and King Henry VIII of England. This seventh Italian war, which lasted almost four years, was sparked by the League of Cognac.

May 6, 1527: The sack of Rome

In response to Pope Clement VII’s alliance with Francis I, the armies of Emperor Charles V stormed Rome. The city would be ransacked and looted for a total of eight days.

August 3, 1529: Signature of the Peace of Cambrai

The Treaty of Cambrai, also known as the Ladies‘ Peace, was signed by Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I, and Margaret of Austria, aunt of Charles V, to stop hostilities between France and the Habsburgs. As part of the deal, the recently widowed Francis I wed the emperor’s sister, Eleanor of Habsburg. On top of that, he made a full recovery from Burgundy while still agreeing to forego Italy. After an enormous ransom was paid, the king’s two sons were finally freed. However, in 1536, a fresh fight would break out because of the King of France’s wrath.

January 1, 1530: Meeting between Titian and Charles V

During one of his visits to Italy, the emperor met Titian. To the emperor he dedicated his first portrait. When they finally met, it was a watershed moment in the painter’s career. At this time, he focused on creating a body of portraits that showcased his considerable skill and originality. Charles V also bestowed upon him the titles of Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur, two of the highest honors in the Holy Roman Empire at the time. Only the “Counts Palatine” were eligible to vote for Emperor.

February 23, 1530: Charles V is crowned by the Pope

The iron crown, one of the insignia of Italian royalty, was presented to Charles V by Pope Clement VII on February 23, 1530. Charles V was the last Roman emperor to be crowned by the pope in the Carolingian tradition, which had been practiced since the time of Constantine I. He was crowned the next day at Bologna. His brother Ferdinand of Habsburg was proclaimed King of the Romans in January 1531, exactly one year later.

June 25, 1530: Augsburg Confession

Charles V received the Augsburg Confession on June 25, 1530, during the Diet of Augsburg (the Empire’s Diet at Augsburg was an assembly of different leaders of the Holy Roman Empire). This confession is a text that lays the foundations of Lutheranism, initiated by the monk Martin Luther, at the origin of Protestantism. The Augsburg Confession, authored by Philip Melanchthon and Camerarius, consists of 28 separate pieces of writing. A group of Catholic scholars contested the document on August 3, 1530, leading to its eventual rejection.

February 27, 1531: Formation of The Schmalkaldic League

It was on February 27th, 1531 when the league of Schmalkaldic was established. Philip of Hesse and afterwards Elector John Frederick of Saxony led the German Protestant princes in their rebellion against Charles V and the implementation of the Edict of Worms, which sought to outlaw Lutheranism. By signing an alliance pact with this league in 1545, Charles V’s greatest enemy, Francis I (who was supporting the Turks against Austria), triggered the Schmalkaldic War.

July 23, 1532: Signature of the Peace of Nuremberg

On July 23, 1532, the Protestants of the Holy Roman Empire celebrated the Peace of Nuremberg, which symbolized their triumph. Those individuals then banded together under the leadership of Schmalkaldic and convinced Charles V to ignore the Augsburg rulings, restoring their freedom to worship. In return, the Protestants had to support the Emperor in the war against the Turks.

February 4, 1536: Francis I allied with Suleiman the Magnificent

France’s king and the Ottoman Empire’s Soliman the Magnificent agreed to terms in a treaty known as the Capitulations. Francis I depended on this alliance, unprecedented at the time between a Christian and a Muslim kingdom, to combat his opponent on the front lines of Central Europe during his battle with Emperor Charles V for the ownership of Savoy and Turin.

June 18, 1538: Peace between Francis I and Charles V

Francis I and Charles V signed the Peace of Nice on June 18, 1538, at the request of Pope Paul III. As a result of Francis II Sforza’s passing, the king of France and the emperor of Spain had gone to war in an attempt to claim the duchy of Milan for themselves. In order to start a crusade against England and the Turks, Paul III urges the two sovereigns to tie themselves.

January 2, 1553: The setback of Charles V in Metz

After a losing battle at Metz on January 2, 1553, Charles V’s empire was effectively over. Since September 1552, when Charles V began his siege, the city of Metz has been under constant threat. After the French King Henry II’s formal arrival into the city on April 18, 1552, he planned to retake it. However, Francis, Duke of Guise’s opposition ultimately led to Charles V’s downfall. The Holy Roman Empire’s 60,000-strong army suffered a crushing defeat and was driven back to Thionville.

October 25, 1555: Charles V abdicates

German Emperor Charles V, also king of Spain and Sicily, and lord of the Netherlands, abdicated on October 25, 1555. The Brussels mansion of Coudenberg served as the setting for the event. The duchy of Burgundy and the Netherlands were among the territories he left to his son, Philip II. Charles V, weakened by gout and weary after his victories, started to slowly withdraw from power in 1540. He moved to a convent, where he contracted malaria and died in 1558.

September 21, 1558: Death of Charles V

At the same time, at the age of 58, Charles V, who was Emperor of Germany, Prince of the Netherlands, and King of Spain, died in Yuste, Spain. Since he gave up his throne to his son Philip II, he had been living alone in the Extremadura convent of the Order of St. Jerome. He was the son of Philip the Handsome and Joanna of Castile, who was known in history as Joanna the Mad. Spain and Latin America had been given to him by his mother, and his father had given him the territories of the Holy Roman Empire. From 1519 to 1556, he ruled over this huge empire where “the sun never set” and fought constantly to keep his power and make


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By Bertie Atkinson

Bertie Atkinson is a history writer at Malevus. He writes about diverse subjects in history, from ancient civilizations to world wars. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.